It’s not every day that you get to hear multiple merkin horror stories while singing Shania Twain karaoke, but that’s what happened when I met the stars of The Greasy Strangler in a Jem and the Holograms-themed karaoke room in Texas. Fitting, since the most WTF film of the year is also the most truly outrageous cinematic dare to hit theaters in ages: A sex-filled mystery noir set in a bizarro Los Angeles of today, in which a father and son in matching Pepto-pink turtlenecks bicker by day while a nude madman stalks the city at night, covered in grease.
The Greasy Strangler defies categorization, which made it a perfect midnight cult flick in the making when it premiered last January at Sundance. It marks the feature debut of Brit helmer Jim Hosking (Renegades), who revels in his penchant for protruding potbellies, intensely awkward sex scenes, and the palpable discomfort that comes from not quite knowing what the hell it is you’re watching—Wes Anderson for true weirdos, At the center of two parallel plotlines connected by one greased-up serial killer is star Michael St. Michaels, a ferociously committed figure onscreen and a septuagenarian lothario offscreen whose face you can’t forget once you’ve seen it smile, sneer, and scarf down vast quantities of hot-dog grease.
Michaels plays Big Ronnie, the abrasive and uber-horny proprietor of a terrible disco walking tour of Los Angeles who spends his waking hours wreaking emotional havoc on his adult virgin son, the towering, cowering Big Brayden (Sky Elobar). When one of their walking tour clients, a frizzy-haired local lady named Janet (Eastbound & Down’s Elizabeth De Razzo) comes between them, the nighttime killing sprees of the Greasy Strangler ramp up, with extremely NSFW results.
In real life, Michaels has the same shock of wavy white hair, but also flashes a frequent debonair smile and a booming laugh that erupts from his belly with no trace of the menace he turns on so intensely onscreen. Now 72, he was an unlikely actor to get a big break from Hosking and a gaggle of producers on Greasy Strangler, including Fantastic Fest founder Tim League and Lord of the Rings star/filmmaker Elijah Wood. Over cocktails in a sparkly-pink karaoke room during Fantastic Fest, he and De Razzo reunited and regaled me with the greasiest of stories.
Michaels had been trying to bounce back from a self-described studio blacklisting for years when Hosking remembered him from a previous project and called him in for The Greasy Strangler last year. He walked in to audition, read his lines, and shrugged when the director asked him one last crucial question: “Do you mind doing nudity?”
“I said, ‘It doesn’t bother me—I don’t have to look at it!’” he bellowed. Soon enough, he landed the part—one with a lot of nude scenes, sex scenes, and frontal nudity so detailed the production had a vast collection of prosthetic penises at the ready.
De Razzo, 34, who spent three seasons playing Maria on HBO’s Eastbound & Down and had just finished filming Idiotsitter with Jillian Bell, had a harder time being convinced The Greasy Strangler would not ruin her career. In fact, the Laredo, Texas, native told me when she got the script from her agent and manager her first reaction was, “Hell no.” “I had done topless and I had one sex scene on Eastbound & Down… but this was a LOT of nudity,” De Razzo laughed. “Reading the script it felt like 75 percent of the time I’d be naked. And the sex scenes were extremely… just… a bit much. I said, ‘There is definitely no way I can do this.’”
Her agents and manager convinced her to dutifully audition anyway, and she was called back a few days later for a chemistry read she also didn’t want to do. “I told my agent, ‘NOPE!’ But he was like, ‘It’s going to be like a Napoleon Dynamite on steroids!’” She still refused. Then finally went in, read, and really got it. “It reminded me of a John Waters movie, and I’m a huge John Waters fan.”
The biggest hurdle, still, was a level of unprecedentedly bizarre and gratuitous nudity the role would require of her. “One, I was like, ‘My family can never see this,’” she laughed. “And then two, as a character actress and a plus-sized actress, people can be cruel. People were really great with Eastbound & Down, but with this there was going to be a lot of me. So I had a lot of trepidation about that.”
Given those fears, De Razzo’s decision to not only take the role but give it such gusto makes hers the bravest and most fearless film performance of the year. She sparkles onscreen in a ridiculous wig as Janet, a buxom tour-group client who first falls for the timid Brayden, then his boorish father Ronnie, as both men vie for her affections. She winds up bedding both of them in sex scenes lavishly filled with confrontational nudity, bringing an energy to the love triangle that alternates between effervescently naïve and sensual.
When Brayden walks in on Janet and Big Ronnie chanting “Hootie Tootie Disco Cutie” post-coitus, it’s De Razzo’s unbridled commitment that sells the mania of the moment.
“I did like that it wasn’t sexualized, which is what made Eastbound & Down OK as well,” she said. “It was more like, awkward and funny and real, but it wasn’t meant to be exploitative, it wasn’t like… porn.” “That,” interjected St. Michael, erupting into an infectious cackle, “was the only drawback.”
De Razzo grabbed the mic to demolish Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero,” dedicated appropriately to St. Michaels. Together they toasted tequila shots and giggled trading lines from The Greasy Strangler, bonded by the time they spent making the movie—largely in a rickety house off the I-10 freeway. They remembered being afraid of black mold on the walls and creaky balconies scarier than the creative risks they were taking to bring Hosking’s vision to life. They sang Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”
In a cinematic year filled with Oscar-bait performances, it’s De Razzo’s full-bodied turn as Janet, torn between two men and just as game as her co-stars to bare it all for the cause, that deserves awards consideration. She remembered the panic setting in right before Day 2—her first scheduled nude scene. De Razzo grinned, teeing up the horror story of all horror stories.
It all began, she said, when she left set after the first day of filming to search the city for a last-minute Brazilian wax.
“They used the wrong wax,” De Razzo began, a glint in her eye. “So they tore some of my skin off and I had, like, open wounds. Lex, who is amazing, had to hand-lay the merkin on me while I was spread-eagle in this fucking house that was about to fall apart—and when she had to take it off, she had to use rubbing alcohol. I was DYING, screaming crying as this thing was being ripped off. Our producer Theo Brooks was like, ‘Tequila?’”
In honor of De Razzo’s nightmare Brazilian-merkin experience, the three of us took a round of Patron shots. The taste of tequila still reminds her of that day, how terribly she suffered for her art. “Oh god, yes,” she whispered. “Forever and always.”
She recalled being concerned for St. Michaels’ health as they filmed one of several energetic sex scenes. “I was more concerned for him,” said De Razzo, laughing. “In that scene where I’m riding him I had them put pillows on both sides. I needed a little booster seat.” She turned, flush with excitement. “We should invent that in real life! I have really strong legs, and I always tell people if you get caught between my thighs I’m like a fucking anaconda: I will never let you go.”
“Oooh!” St. Michaels cooed on cue, the second half of a finely tuned comedy duo chiming in for the laugh line.
“I was sweating up a storm,” De Razzo remembered. “I had the boob sweat, the ass sweat, everything was happening.” St. Michaels winked, before crooning one of his favorite songs, Dean Martin’s ode to lecherous voyeurism, “Standing on a Corner.” “I do that to people.”
For his art, St. Michaels had to strip down and get covered in creamy, viscous grease that left him shivering: “It’ll give you frostbite in the middle of summer!” When the script called for him eating bucketloads of grease, he devoured tapioca. But none of that was terribly outrageous for St. Michaels, who might just be the most fascinating man in Hollywood—or at least dancing in greased-up disco threads on its periphery.
A longtime background actor and man about sets, he lives modestly in a Long Beach high-rise, gets a monthly SAG pension, and had just moved his mother to San Diego when the biggest film of his career came along last year. He’s an air sign with water tendencies. “My marriages have never really worked out.” How many have there been? “Just a couple.” He once did a run of small parts on In Living Color and remembers dying a lot on that show. “Handi Man killed me once when he came to rescue somebody and landed on me… on Married With Children I was always Al Bundy’s worst enemy’s best friend.”
Born Michael Rappaport, St. Michaels changed his name thanks to the other Michael Rapaport, inspired by punk singer Meri St. Mary. He served in the military, getting out right before Vietnam. He worked as a hairdresser a la Warren Beatty in Shampoo before spending the late ’70s running a punk venue called the Skeleton Club in San Diego, where he also “managed a couple of bands into oblivion.” The punk club helped finance his sailing hobby, he explained. “And I was also heavily into coke.”
Occasionally people recognize St. Michael from his turn in a 1987 cult techno-slasher called The Video Dead, in which he played an author who unwittingly unleashes mayhem when the zombies from a horror movie come ambling out of his television set. But so vibrant and random is the legend of Michael St. Michaels, even De Razzo is still learning new tidbits about her co-star. (We learned one new fact about her: She’s a huge X-Files fanatic who can name specific episodes by heart.)
There are the circumstances that led him as a child to be sent to Mexico City, where he described living next door to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. “My father thought we were losing World War II and he sent us to Mexico,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They were cool!” Seeing Salma Hayek play Kahlo in Frida gave him flashbacks of the puppet shows he used to watch as a child, he added, because her performance was so spot-on. He remembers Juan O’Gorman and David Alfaro Siqueiros—“the guy who killed Trotsky!”—but credits neither that upbringing nor his punk days as the one fundamental influence on his life. “I think it was my early exposure to smut,” he grinned.
The next song in our karaoke queue came up—Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”—and St. Michaels belted it out with authority. Next to him, De Razzo was nearly crying laughing. “Can we just get him a reality show?”